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Thu November 22, 2012
Innovation Hub of 11/24/12: Why Nations Fail. Modernist Cooking
Here's the lineup for this week:
Why Nations Fail
Our two guests offer a new take on why nations fail and explain how America can avoid that fate.
- Daron Acemoglu: Killian professor of economics at MIT, co-author of "Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty"
- James Robinson: David Florence professor of government at Harvard University, co-author of "Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty"
Cook Like You're A Modernist
Nathan Myhrvold doesn't see food the way the rest of us do.
When Martha Stewart was touring his home kitchen several years ago, she noticed a few unusual toys, including "a machine that freezes food in 20 seconds, another machine that thaws food in 30 seconds...[and] a computer-controlled smoker than can barbecue a whole hog perfectly."
But then again, Myhrvold also has a slightly different pedigree than most of us. He had a Ph.D. by the time he was 23, studied with Stephen Hawking and was chosen by Bill Gates to be Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft.
His latest venture, though, has been boiling down his six-volume work, "Modernist Cuisine," into a guide for home cooks. The final product is Modernist Cuisine at Home, and it’s perfect for cooks who are as obsessed as Myhrvold with creating the perfect burger, the perfect French fry, or the perfect omelet.
The Obsession Begins
Myhrvold traces his love of cooking back to Thanksgiving dinner. “When I was nine years old, I announced to my mother that I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner — all by myself,” he remembers. “I went shopping by myself, I wouldn’t let her in the kitchen, and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner.”
The family table was only the beginning of Myhrvold’s stubborn desire to learn how to cook. He took a leave of absence from Microsoft to attend culinary school in France and even moonlighted at a restaurant one night a week because the school only accepted students with professional experience.
After retiring from Microsoft, Myhrvold noticed that the only way to gain a complete set of culinary skills was to cobble together experience in different kitchens. “I realized that there was a whole set of new cooking techniques that were being done by a small set of the best chefs in the world, but there was no place to learn it,” Myhrvold says. “If you went and you worked in one kitchen for a while you’d learn those three techniques. If you went to another kitchen he’d have another five ideas. But there was no comprehensive book.”
Thus began the quest to write that big book — and a big book it is. “Modernist Cuisine” is a 2438 page, 50-pound shelf-breaker. Even the whittled down “Modernist Cuisine at Home” tips the scale at 10 pounds. So why invest in these encyclopedic works? What revelations lie inside?
The Secret to "Modernist Cuisine"
Myhrvold’s methods focus on the ability to control the cooking process exactly, allowing, for example, the ability to cook an entire steak to 130 degrees, or medium rare, without getting those grey bands of well-done meat on either side. “You can make a big pot of hot water…put the steaks in, let it sit for an hour or so, and finish it in a super hot pan or on a grill, just for a few seconds on each side to sear it,” Myhrvold explains. The hot water bath is a technique borrowed from professional kitchens — top chefs call the method “sous vide.”
Cooking a steak in hot (but not boiling) water will take longer than conventional methods — up to two hours depending on the thickness of your steak. But it also eliminates the anxiety that you’ll get a stake too rare, or gummy and overdone. “It turns out you can be pretty cavalier about the timing,” Myhrvold says. “If you’re a little bit early, a little bit late, there will be no problem. So all of the anxiety that comes from timing it goes away.”
In fact, Myhrvold’s two hour steak is one of the least time consuming recipes to be found in “Moderist Cuisine at Home.” On a press tour, Myhrvold fed Stephen Colbert pastrami that had been cooked sous vide for 72 hours. Cooking the meat at a low temperature for such a long time allows all of the collagen in the pastrami to break down, making the meat incredibly tender.
An equally innovative aspect of “Modernist Cuisine” are its images. Myhrvold and his team cut food and equipment in half in order to demonstrate what goes on inside an oven, a pot, or a pan while you’re making a meal. The result is a cross-section image that eliminates the mystery from the cooking process.
“I thought, let’s actually cut things in half,” Myhrvold says, “so that people can really see what’s happening. See what’s happening inside a steak while you cook it, or inside a pot of water that’s boiling when you’re steaming broccoli.”
For those who think that modernist cuisine is only viable in top-notch professional kitchens, Myhrvold points to the proliferation of foams. While a decade ago only the most daring chefs were whipping savory elements into foam, the trend has found its way into kitchens across America. Myhrvold believes the transformation occurred when people realized that texture plays an important role in food.
“When you whip something up into a foam it has a different texture, it has a different taste,” he explains. “Lots of people enjoy whipped cream on a dish where if you just gave them cream, they probably wouldn’t do it. That’s an example of the trickle down.”
Along with watching modernist techniques find their place in the home and in restaurants across America, Myhrvold says the most satisfying part of writing “Modernist Cuisine” has been finally becoming the expert he strove to be.
“Who was I to tell famous cooks how to cook?” Myhrvold laughs, “They call me up and ask advice now.”
For more on Nathan Myhrvold and "Modernist Cuisine" watch NOVA scienceNow's "Can I Eat That?"